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A Short Biblical Study on the Causes of Suffering

What does the Bible say about suffering?  Scripture describes creation as good and initially without sin (Gen. 1-2).  When sin entered the world as a result of Eve and Adam yielding to the temptation to act like God determining for themselves what is good and evil, God responded to their explicit disobedience with suffering and punishment (Genesis 3.1-19).  In this sin, all humanity has participated (Rom. 5.17).  Scripture also teaches that suffering will one day come to an end when God brings final judgement to a sin-ridden world and restores a sinless world (Revelation 21.3-4).  This basic narrative undergirds Biblical teaching on suffering.  Suffering is ultimately due to sin, whether as God’s punishment or by experiencing the results of sinful choices, living in a sinful society, or, in general, in a fallen world. 

Yet Scripture gives more reasons for suffering, and a specific individual’s suffering cannot always be related to his or her particular sin.  The following chart intends to show the great variety of reasons that Scripture offers to explain suffering.  All too often some religious person speaks up in the face of a crisis—a hurricane, e.g.—to suggest that the cause of suffering is divine judgement for a specific social practice.  This may or may not be so, but if it is not absolutely clear (as, for example, someone suffering because of drugs), one should not make any such claim.  Moreover, individuals need to be aware of the variety of reasons in Scripture for suffering as they face personal suffering, and they should be comforted in knowing that God is dealing with sin and suffering.  He has already acted decisively through the work of Christ to address the human plight, and we can be assured that we will one day see an end to sin and suffering.  We indwell a narrative of God’s redemption of a sinful world.  Finally, despite the entrance of sin into God’s good creation, this cycle of sin, punishment, and God’s redemption reveals more about God than Adam and Eve would have known before their sin in the Garden of Eden.  We learn of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love (Exodus 34.6-7).  We learn of his forbearance of sin and of his willingness to send His only Son to die for our sins (John 3.16).  The incarnation and death of Jesus on the cruel cross will restore us from the sin that causes suffering in this world and already reveals to us more of God.  Indeed, it is God’s purpose to reveal Himself, His glory, in the world, and His glory is revealed in the cross of Christ.  We also learn more about love—God’s love—which is not only forgiving but also suffering, redemptive, and transformative.  In this light, consider the following causes of suffering and some representative Scripture passages for each one.

Cause of Suffering
Scriptural Reflection
Divine Punishment for Sin
Gen. 1-11; 3.14-19; Num. 14.32-35 Deut. 27; Judges 10.15-16; 2 Sam. 12.1-23 and Ps. 51; 2 Chron. 6.22-39; Prophets (e.g., Jer. 30.14-15; Lam. 1.3-5); Psalm 38; 1 Cor. 11.29-30; 2 Cor. 2.10-11; Rom. 1.18-3.20; 12.1-2; 2 Th. 1.6-10
Divine Forbearance with Mercy and Forgiveness Rather than Immediate Judgement
Exodus 34.6-7; Rom. 3.25
Human Punishment for doing Wrong
Gen. 9.5-6; Lev. 20; 24.19-20; Rom. 13.1-5; 1 Peter 4.15
Divine Testing
Exodus; Deuteronomy; Job; Matthew 4.1-11//Luke 4.1-13; Hebrews 2.18; 1 Peter 1.6-7
Divine Lessons
1 Cor. 5.5; 1 Tim. 1.20; 2 Cor. 12.7; Rom. 5.3-5; 12.12; Hebrews 2.10; 5.8
Glory to God through Suffering
John 9.2-3; 2 Cor. 12.9-10
Correction is Painful
2 Cor. 2.1-11; Gal. 4.19-20
Self-Inflicted Suffering
Prov. 22.13 and 27.12; 19.15; 21.17
Temptation by Evil/Satan
Gen. 3.1-19; James 1.12-15; 1 Cor. 7.5; 1 Tim. 5.14-15
Disordered Life (Selfishness, Own Appetites/Desires)
Isaiah 58.4-14; Rom. 16.18-20; 2 Thes. 2.9-12
Effects of Sin
Gen. 3.14-19; Rom. 1.18-28
Sinful World
Gen. 3-11; John 16.33; 1 Peter 2.19
Community Practices
Psalm 1; Prov. 1.10-19
Spiritual Warfare
Ph. 6.14-18; 1 Peter 5.8-9; Rev. 2.10
Evil People and Righteous Sufferer
Many lament psalms, such as Psalm 69; Isaiah 53; Phil. 1.17
Systemic Evil, Bad Leaders, and Harmful Community Practices
Exodus 3.7-10; Ezek. 22.6-7; Zech. 10.2; Matthew 16.21
Deut. 29.17-27; 32.21-25; Ezekiel 16.35-63; Rom. 1.18-28
Imperfect World (disasters, injury, death)
Matthew 24.7c; Rom. 8.18-23.
Failure to Pray; Lack of faith
1 Sam. 9.16; James 4.2; 5.13; Matthew 17.14-20
Present and Future
John 16.20-22; James 5.7-11; 1 Peter 5.10; Rev. 6.10; 21.4
Being a Christian; suffering like Christ
(the righteous suffer in a sinful world)
Acts 5.41; 9.16; 14.22; Rom. 8.17-18, 35-36; 12.12; 2 Cor. 6.4-10; 7.4-7; Phil. 1.29; 3.8, 10; Col. 1.24; 1 Th. 2.2, 14-15; 3.4; 2 Th. 1.5; 2 Tim. 1.8, 11-12; 2.3, 8-9; 3.12; 4.5; Hebrews 10.32-34; 11.24-26, 35-40; 1 Peter 2.18-25; 3.14-18; 4.1-2, 13-16, 19; Rev. 1.9; 2.9-10; 7.14
Suffering with Others
1 Cor. 12.26; 2 Cor. 1.5-7; Eph. 3.13
Suffering in the End Times
Matthew 24.21, 29; Revelation